Steven Heller | Essays

The Good Books

Kommt, sehet de Kunst, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher

Why can’t American publishers produce a series of good — no great — books on graphic culture like Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher? Published in 1979 by Harenberg Kommunikation, Dortmund, Germany, each small usually full color volume was based on a visual theme, including American absurdist postcards, German political posters, French cigarette advertisements, vending machine cards, Soviet Posters, and Liebig’s Fleisch Extract advertising cards. There is also a set of photographs from Polish Ghettos, Jews in Prussia, an album of battlefield portraits, and scores of other rare, variegated, and wonderful visual treasures. The series of well over 250, 4 ¾ x 7 inch books (varying in length) were all primarily visual with introductory text that established context. All were designed in the same minimalist literary format (colored paper cover with a tip-on image on the cover); and all were finely printed to facsimile standards. 

Liebig's Sammelkarten, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher, cover

Liebig's Sammelkarten, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher, interior of book

I began collecting Taschenbücher in the early 80s when a friend sent me Kommt, sehet die Kunst, art exhibition posters from Germany and the Vienna Secession. Actually, collecting is too passive a word. I devoured and hoarded them. I traveled to Paris just to buy them since I couldn’t find a single copy even at the most savvy art / design bookstores in New York. They were distributed in the UK, France, Italy and of course Germany, but even over there they were only in the choicest shops. My mouth watered whenever I saw those unmistakable multicolored spines peering out from the shelves.

I ended up with over five dozen (and that was just the tip of the ice-book-berg). So my mission was to see them distributed in the United States. There certainly were other little books of graphic ephemera produced in Europe and Japan, but nothing of this diverse magnitude. They were a natural purchase for anyone who had a hankering for rare design artifacts, which at that time, one couldn’t even find in larger art books. Nonetheless, every publisher I approached with the idea of reprinting them in English, or simply distributing the German editions, refused. “There is no market for this kind of thing,” was the common refrain. One sophisticated visual book publisher had the temerity to say, “and besides that, its fluff.”
Vending Machine Cards, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher, cover

Vending Machine Cards, Die Bibliophilen Taschenbücher, interior of book

Of course this was a period when the market for design books had not yet been discovered and flooded. Moreover, graphic design was just beginning to burst out of its parochial confines into a widely recognized profession, and the history of design was considered too arcane. So sadly, American publishers only saw a bottom line that didn’t support these books, as economical as they were.

For a while I would see them at the occasional New York antiquarian book fairs for an inflated price, as though they weren't sold for around $10 per volume depending on size. But even these dried up. Anyone who knew the line — which included much more than graphic design or popular art ephemera — understood their value as inspirational guides and archeological digs.

Today, a few American publishers produce coffee table books featuring much the same material, but there has yet to be a truly affordable line like Taschenbücher. Sadly, the broad range of material that Karl Hitzegrad, the series editor, acutely appreciated has not piqued the interest of publishers here and maybe never will.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [7]

Steven, this post brought back a lot of memories for me. I used to see Taschenbücher all over the place when I was hanging out in bookstores as an exchange student in 1985-86 in Bonn. The sharpness and color repro in even these small books was still better than what you get on a screen today. If I remember correctly, my host family had some Grosz, some Escher, and some Magritte in these editions. While I am constantly surprised at how little Phaidon's books go for today, for example, given the quality of the repro and of the book itself, they are large and still not close to the affordabililty of this series.

The only problem with the Taschenbücher I remember was the thickness and stiffness of the paper. That paper in that format meant that every opening of the book was a declaration of war on the spine!

Another common publisher's line that still exists in Germany that doesn't in the US is the genuinely cheap but serviceable editions of classic and current fiction and academic titles for students. dtv, Suhrkamp, Fischer, and other German presses have great student editions of the books one might assign in the US in upper-level undergraduate courses or graduate seminars. For example, I have the two volumes of Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action that, when I bought them new in 1992, cost DM44,- or around $15-18, for the set. Even the Beacon paperbacks at the time would have cost around $15 or $16 each. The paper is not great, the books are small and perfect-bound, and the text small (but usually well-set and thus readable)--but how great for professors to be able to assign whole texts in something better than third- and fourth-generation photocopies (or now, 150dpi .pdfs) and cheaper than trade editions from academic presses.
Maurice Meilleur

Dear Mr. Heller, Is there a similar collection of books that exists today you might recommend? Also, do you think this is a type of project that would be worth tackling today? As a fledgling collector of design, um, stuff, I would be interested in the type of market these books might be appropriate for, asides from me and other design enthusiasts. Thanks for sharing, it would be great to see these in hand, but until then, the screen will do. Take care, John
John Rudolph

Though I am certianly not old enough to remember the books you would love to have reprinted here, I find from your description a great similarity to some of the books printed by Taschen today. Their books tend to be larger scale, coffee table art books, but I do prefer the larger books, for their larger images. They have books on art and design varying in topic based on Artist or Designer, to time period and/or style. While, they may not be the optimal solution, they are usually very reasonably priced. I often find them in the Bargin Bin section at Barnes & Nobel for between $5 & $10. For a full list of their books - Visit their site
Andrea Dillon

Some books in this series can still be found, at relatively reasonable prices, but it seems they're all used and still in Germany. They can be ordered online.
rich melcher

European design books are so different from the American counterparts. American books tend to be huge and bulky (just like everything else) with as much content it can fit not matter how bad they are. European books are small and elegant, almost like a keepsake of very selective work without skimping on quality.
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